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Keith Rankin: The Shipley Bill

Principle Or Politics? The Shipley Bill

Keith Rankin, 10 May 2001

Jenny Shipley's Electoral Options Referenda Bill has been drawn from the private members' ballot. Tilting at windmills, Mrs Shipley wants, or claims to want, "the people" to decide whether to fix an electoral system that ain't broke. Certainly our mixed member proportional (MMP) system has been subject to no serious academic objection; a situation that is diametrically opposed to the widespread academic criticism heaped on the old loser-take-all (FPP) system.

The bill is unlikely to go further than its first reading, according to (among others) the Herald's John Armstrong. It pre-empts a parliamentary process that's already in place, and to which the Government and the Green Party are committed.

We need to tease out the principle behind the Shipley referenda bill. Does she believe that the people should always have a right to choose and re-choose their electoral system? Or is this decade a special case, time for a one-off rematch between the new heavyweight champion and his predecessor, with a couple of other names thrown into the ring just to make the rematch seem fair?

In my view, another referendum between MMP and FPP would be much like another referendum on six-o'clock closing. Nostalgia for the 1960s is all very well and good, but that in itself is no reason for bringing back the six o'clock swill or an antiquated non-representative voting system. Even bringing back Buck, good that he may have been, would be a backward step in this new century. Lets leave the nostalgia to Paul Holmes.

What would be the constitutional position if FPP were to prevail in a Shipley- inspired referendum? It would be like a 1-1 result in a Bledisloe Cup series. We would surely need a third contest as a decider. It would hardly be constitutional to re-introduce a system that was rejected by a huge margin in 1992.

Does Jenny Shipley want us to have a referendum (or set of referendums) every decade? If not, why not? She is deliberately seeking to replicate the process of 1992-1993. The logic of her argument is that any change in the electoral system should be followed by a rematch approximately 10 years later. Her bill should be explicit about this. If her referenda bill is based on principle rather than on expediency, then her bill should be amended so that it does allow for referendums a decade after any new voting system commences.

Let's consider her EOR bill as a one-off, and imagine that, instead of giving us back the delights of Rogernomics and Muldoonery, it gives us our third voting system in 15 years. It would then give us a system that would be much less well investigated and understood than MMP was in 1992 and 1993. The chance that many of us would be dissatisfied with such a new system would be very high.

Further, if the EOR is intended as a one-off rather than as a matter of general principle, the legislation is unlikely to provide for either a review process or for a third suite of referendums. We could be stuck with a system we know much less well than MMP.

(Or, we could revert to the loser-take-all FPP system that we never understood despite our familiarity with it. In the 90 years before 1996, we only had two governments [1938, 1951] which were elected by a majority of voters. 1993 was a landslide win for the left. Yet, in 1993, a one-party right-wing government was able to accede to power, and to rule with minimal restraint. We are still lumbered with a 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act that might have been drafted by William Downie Stewart in 1931.)

I would like to consider the possibility that we will end up with the "single transferable vote" (STV) voting in our parliamentary elections.

Local authorities will have the option of using STV in 2004. It's a pity that it will only be an option. STV is very well suited to local government elections, where councils are elected through multi-member wards rather than single-member electorates. Under STV, in which candidates are ranked by voters, we would no longer get the situation like that in Mt Eden where all 6 members of the Community Board come from the same 'party' (City Vision). Rather, members in each ward or board or trust will reflect the diversity of voter preferences. STV will, eventually, bring representative democracy to local government.

An important (and superficially popular) feature of STV is that the main rivals of any candidate for office are other members of the same party or ticket. This is a recipe for a marked increase in personality politics. To a large extent personality politics always have predominated (and always will predominate) in city councils (and in bodies such as the Auckland Energy Consumers Trust). Hence, the major disadvantage of STV - the propensity towards ego-driven rather than issue-driven politics - is merely par for the course in local body politics.

But consider what it is that turns New Zealanders most off a parliamentary party. It's party disunity. It's politicians who are seen to pursue individual agendas at the expense of the team they are in. (Hence the attractiveness to many of the government's Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - the anti-Kopu bill.) While many New Zealand punters liked colourful politicians such as Mike Minogue who 20 years ago battled the National Party whipping machine, we like and have liked teamwork much more. We expect politicians to resolve personal differences; to act in the collective interest and not to pursue their individual careers by shafting their colleagues.

Jenny Shipley suggests we might want to fix something that I don't think even she believes is broke. She is actually on record as wanting to strengthen MMP by having a fixed electoral term, thereby denying parties the tactic of "collapsing the scrum" in order to precipitate a "snap election". The least she should do this month is tell us what she thinks is a better electoral system than the one we have, and why.

I believe that she is soliciting votes from people who, for rational or irrational reasons, want to return to the "good old days" of autocratic government. To that end, she wishes to be seen to be attending to their misguided nostalgia. Under MMP, National is no longer the natural party of government. Rather, National is just another competitor in the contestable political marketplace that MMP has created. Any voter-catching headline-grabbing gimmick will help our erstwhile leader who is in danger of becoming 'Jenny Who?'.

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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